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The Robots of Death

By Graham Howard

I have to admit that when The Robots of Death was first on TV it didn't really excite me. For that matter neither did The Talons of Weng-Chiang. However, now these two stories are easily among my favourites of the Tom Baker era. The Robots of Death takes place on a huge mining vehicle known as the 'Sandminer' which seeks to extract valuable minerals from the surface of the planet. The Sandminer is also home to a small crew of humans and a larger number of robots which perform most of the routine duties on board the craft. There are D (Dumb) and V (Voc) class robots as well as an SV (Super Voc).

In some ways the enclosed, isolated setting of the Sandminer is reminiscent of those used in many Troughton stories to great effect. Although the story is science fiction orientated, it also contains elements of the traditional whodunnit murder mystery. One of the strengths of The Robots of Death is its success in combining both these genres. Although the viewer knows the robots must be involved in the killings the fact that they must have been reprogrammed to kill by some unknown person means the suspense is maintained. The robots themselves are visually impressive, almost too human-like to be robot ('like being surrounded by walking, talking dead men'), but then not human enough to allay the feelings of unease that humans have for them. I thought the idea of robophobia was a nice touch to illustrate an extreme version of this unease. Killer robots may not be new to Doctor Who, but they are handled in such a way that the story seems fresh and original, and the robots certainly make chilling adversaries. It is interesting to note, however that the real villain of the story is human.

Tom Baker and Louise Jameson are arguably at their best in the Hinchcliffe era, and they both give excellent performances with some sparkling dialogue. There are also some strong performances from the supporting cast. It is therefore something of a pity that, for the most part I found the novelisation didn't really match the high standards displayed in the television episodes.

The Novelisation

Unlike The War Machines novelisation which greatly expanded on many aspects of the televised story, Terrance Dicks' novelisation is a fairly close adaptation of the episodes as they appeared on screen (which is all the novelisations purported to be back in 1979 when the book was first published). Terrance Dicks has in fact made quite a few alterations, additions and deletions, but as seems to be the case with novelisations, many of these are just trivial changes to dialogue. I have not attempted to list all of the alterations but only some of the more significant and/or interesting ones. As with my previous article, I am assuming that Dicks made his changes from the television episodes whereas in fact they may have been incorporated in the original script.

For the most part Dicks has given the barest of descriptions and has provided only cursory attempts at character development. Where character insights are given these do add interest to the book, but I felt these to be mostly just passing comments rather than an attempt to portray any real depth. The Robots of Death therefore comes across as being somewhat bland and perhaps rushed in places. Some of this can be attributed to Dicks' busy schedule: being Target's most regular writer, The Robots of Death was only one of five Who novelisations he undertook in 1979 (nine in 1980!). However, on the positive side, Dicks has made some additions which I believe are an improvement on the original. Unfortunately, my overall impression with regard to this book is that it doesn't fully do justice to what was, to my mind at least, an example of televised Doctor Who at its best.

The Plot

The first chapter is almost a word-for-word account of the action as seen on television, along with brief introductory descriptions of the characters, the robots and the Sandminer. I did like Dicks' description of the Sandminer as a "massive metal crab on an immense multi-coloured sea of sand."

The first real addition Dicks has made occurs where the crew is following the progress of a storm. Chub has apparently forgotten to supply an "instrument pack report" Commander Uvanov asks how he is supposed to run a ship with "amateurs". When Zilda defends Chub, Uvanov scathingly suggests she is only doing so because he, like her, belongs to one of the "Founding Families, one of the Twenty". The relevance of this is only implied on screen, but Dicks has explained that there were originally twenty families, who colonised the planet from Earth many hundreds of years ago. Dicks adds that "the descendants of the original Founding Families still enjoyed a kind of aristocratic status" which was "profoundly irritating to Uvanov. His family had been one of the last to arrive..." Later Commander Uvanov says to Zilda that he will make her rich again. Dicks has noted that her family was "distinguished but impoverished too - otherwise she wouldn't be a technician on a Sandminer, shut away for two years with people like Uvanov".

The robots capture the Doctor and Leela. The Doctor seems familiar with the robots and says he has seen something similar to the Sandminer operation before on Korlano Beta.

On being informed of the Doctor and Leela's capture, Zilda asks if they could be "ore raiders"? In the book it is Uvanov who declares them to be ore raiders. Uvanov adds that they must have killed Chub when he discovered them. Dicks has also noted that "ore hijackings had occurred in the early days of the planet's history" but now, thanks to the imposition of law and order by 'the Company', they were "a thing of the past".

On being informed by SV7 of the Doctor and Leela's subsequent escape Uvanov replies: "then you'd better find them and find them quick! Put every spare robot on it!" Dicks has omitted this line, which is peculiar, because it helps to explain their recapture by robots later on.

Leela discovers the body of Cass. Uvanov enters and questions her about Cass's death. Uvanov attributes three deaths to Leela (and the Doctor), whereas in the novelisation he attributes only two. In this case I believe the novelisation makes more sense, because Uvanov would presumably be unaware of Kerril's death until informed of this (and the Doctor's presence at the scene of the crime) shortly after by Poul. When Leela is dragged away she shouts: "I didn't kill him! I didn't kill him!" Dicks has omitted this. But he has included Poul's subsequent remark: "No. Pity, but no." - which is directly linked to her vehement denials, so the reason for leaving this line out is not apparent.

The Doctor and Leela are finally presented to the surviving crew for questioning. In possibly Dicks' most infamous mistake, he describes "the lean muscular Cass" as being present, when of course he was found murdered only a few pages ago!!

One of my favourite scenes in The Robots of Death is the interrogation (in front of the crew) of the Doctor and Leela by Uvanov. We have the Doctor's cool arrogance, his casual manner which suggests that nothing he says will convince Uvanov and the others of their innocence. There is also the underlying tense, frustrated mood of the crew. Uvanov questions the Doctor about their presence on the Sandminer. His questions sound like accusations, and his mildly mocking tone suggests their presence on the Sandminer is evidence enough of their guilt. The Doctor is non-plussed as he calmly informs them of the facts. Unfortunately I don't believe Dicks has successfully captured the feel of this scene. For example in the book Uvanov appears almost hysterical: he "screams" (twice), he "sneers", he "hisses" at the Doctor and "his face twisted with rage". Why Dicks adopted this approach is not obvious - it may be because Dicks was trying to make Uvanov more unlikable (see below). Whatever the reason, I much prefer the television version of this scene.

The Doctor and Leela are being held prisoner with "metal bands around necks hips and ankles clamping to the wall. Dicks has left out Leela's comment that "it was nice of them to leave our arms free".

The Doctor notes that in a robot dependent ("dominated" in book) society such as this, if a way had been found to enable a robot to break its programming and kill then it might "mean the end of this civilisation". Dicks has added a small piece to better convey how this might come about: "The Doctor considered how the contagion of fear could spread through a planet like some terrible plague. Robots everywhere destroyed in blind panic, technology grinding to a halt."

A small hint as to the possibility of Dask's involvement with the murders is weakened by Dicks, probably to keep the reader guessing a little longer. Also having described Dask's voice as being "as calm as that of a robot" a few paragraphs earlier might have seemed too obvious. Dask refuses the Doctor's help in repairing the (sabotaged) damaged motive units. The Doctor accepts this and remarks: "I'm sure Dask knows where to look for the damage", whereas in the book the Doctor says: "I'm sure Dask knows what to do" so removing any implication of guilt.

The Doctor confronts D.84 over his ability to speak, this being inconsistent with his "D" class status. Dicks has filled in some detail, hinted at but missing from the television episodes as to the reasons for the presence of D.84 (and Poul) on the Sandminer. The "all-powerful Company which controlled all mining operations and therefore the economic life of the planet" had received several letters threatening "to overthrow the Company" and "death and destruction to the human colonists". Presumably there was also something in the letters to connect this particular Sandminer to those threats. Dicks has also noted that D.84 is actually "an advanced type of Super-Voc with specially designed investigatory circuits".

D.84 tells the Doctor the letters were signed by a scientist named Taren Capel. The Doctor asks D.84 what Taren Capel's specialty was before guessing. In the book the Doctor correctly assumes right away, ie robotics.

D.84 and the Doctor begin to search for Taren Capel's secret workshop. Leela, who has been locked in the crew room by Poul, is shouting for someone to release her. D.84 hears this: "I heard a cry." The Doctor, who had yelled when D.84 touched him on the shoulder, remarks "that was me". D.84 repeats this a few more times - each time the Doctor replies "that was me" but they continue on their way towards the suspected location of the workshop. In the book Dicks has abbreviated this and D.84 says "Come" and then "led the way down the corridor" towards the sound. The reason for this alteration is somewhat baffling as the next we see of them they are in Taren Capel's workshop, as on the televised episodes with no further explanation, making the scene seem incomplete.

The robots have been ordered to kill the remaining crew members. A murderous robot appears behind Uvanov, who has just confronted the Doctor and D.84 in Taren Capel's workshop. I love the Doctor's matter-of-fact, almost bored delivery when he says to Uvanov: "Now either it followed you here or it homed in on this...it depends which of us it's going to kill first." But as with much of Dicks' dialogue there is no indication as to how the lines were expressed.

V.6 attacks Toos in her cabin. Dicks has curtailed her heart rendering pleas for mercy on screen to "No," she sobbed. "Please don't!"

In order to deflect the attention of V.5 and the damaged V.4 from himself and Uvanov, the Doctor puts his hat and scarf over V.5. V.4 attacks V.5. Dicks has noted that "a fully functioning robot would never have been deceived but V.4's brain had been damaged by the probe." Dicks has left out V.5's "do not kill me" which is so like a polite request that it is almost funny.

The truth about Uvanov's alleged murder of Zilda's brother is finally revealed. As the boy's father belonged to one of the Founding Families he didn't want people to believe his son had been a coward. Dicks has added "he managed to cover-up all right by making people think the whole thing was my fault" and "the boy's father even managed to get his version on my official file."

The Doctor is working on a device that he hopes will disable the robots. Leela asks the Doctor what he is doing. Dicks has expanded on the television response, noting he is attempting "to make a Deactivator" (which Baker doesn't mention until his next scene: "...a kind of Final Deactivator"). In the book the Doctor continues his explanation: 'You see, [TV: "if I can discover"] I've discovered the way he's modified [TV version stops here] the brains of his killer robots. If the thing works it'll produce a kind of robot brainstorm. [TV continues] Leela, do you have to talk so much?" Perhaps the missing lines were in the script but were skipped by Baker either deliberately or accidentally, but the omission was not considered worthy enough to justify reshooting the scene? In the book, in response to a further question from Leela the Doctor adds that the Deactivator should "reverse the polarity in the robot brain-cells and cause a massive negative feedback which will explode the brain of any robot close by." Even if this is all gobbledegook it does serve to give a better explanation of how the Doctor is going to try to disable the robots, which is rather glossed over on screen.

In the scene where Taren Capel is going to burn out the Doctor's brain ("very, very slowly") with the Laserson probe Dicks has indicated that the Doctor sees the damaged D.84 moving towards the Deactivator, and that the Doctor begins to taunt Taren Capel in order to distract his attention from what D.84 is doing. I prefer this to the television episodes where such a link is not obvious: we simply assume it is a normal for the Doctor to be abusive towards his maniacal captor.

Of all the characters in The Robots of Death I found only two where Dicks appeared to have made an attempt to expand or develop the televised portrayal.


The changes Dicks has made to the character of Uvanov appear to have been designed to make him appear more unpleasant. (As should already be apparent from earlier references in this article.) For example, in one scene Uvanov remarks that because there are fewer people (as a result of the murders) there will each be a larger share of the profit - "if that's a consolation". In the book he says "that's one consolation". Or on being informed of Chub's death Dicks notes "he'd never liked Chub very much anyway". Small changes, but they make him sound more callous than on screen.

During the interrogation of Leela and the Doctor Dicks says "there was something pathetic about Uvanov. A middle aged man trying to appear young, a weak man trying to be strong". Yet later he notes "At times like this there was something curiously impressive about Uvanov. Whatever his other faults, he was the complete professional when it came to his job." Dicks' treatment of Uvanov does seem a little unfair when compared to the television portrayal. Perhaps Dicks wished to emphasize his faults in order to make him a more likely suspect, especially as he is already suspected of murdering Zilda's brother in an earlier trip.

Dicks seems to suggest that Uvanov is attracted to Zilda. In one scene Uvanov asks Zilda why she hates him. Dicks has Uvanov saying: "I don't hate you, we could be friends... [TV has this sentence only:] By the time this trip is over I'll have more money than you [TV: and your fancy Family] ever dreamed of." (Book continues:)" I could restore your family fortunes, Zilda!" These additions perhaps provide a better link to Uvanov's on screen regret at her death later on - "She hated me you know (Dicks has added: "but I didn't hate her" and has Uvanov "gently stroking her hair") "but I did think maybe when this trip was over and I was really (Dicks has "if I became") rich..."


Dicks has made a few interesting observations on Leela's character, although at times Dicks' writing of her also seems to suffer from a lack of depth. When Leela and the Doctor first encounter the robots Dicks has indicated that "it wasn't what Leela saw that worried her, it was what she felt. The creatures were human yet not human, alive and not alive." In another scene Leela senses there is "something wrong", some "new danger". The Doctor is sceptical and says it is just her imagination, but Dicks has noted "but he didn't believe it. He knew Leela's instinct for danger was uncannily accurate." - which of course is confirmed a few moments later! I like the comment, as the Doctor nearly always seems dismissive of Leela's warnings which almost inevitably turn out to be true, but wonder whether Leela has been with the Doctor long enough for the Doctor to actually believe this yet. In another scene Dicks has noted that "Leela's senses were more acute than any robots...", and in yet another scene Leela "sensed rather than heard the faint vibration of the machinery" as it removed the TARDIS from its landing site.

When Poul is explaining to Leela the importance of money, Dicks has noted that Leela's planet did not use money, although a simple barter system had developed, and although the Doctor had attempted to "explain the importance of money in civilised societies... Leela had never really grasped it".

When the Doctor and Poul are investigating Chub's death Dicks indicates that Leela begins to take an interest because "sudden death was one of her specialties".

Dicks does seem to have made an effort to bring out her unique onscreen qualities. However, I was disappointed that he completely ignores her tenderness towards the Robophobia afflicted Poul, which I felt was a nice touch in the televised episodes. And, at the other extreme, he doesn't capture the pure venom in her reaction to Uvanov's attempted assault: "if you try that again I'll cripple you!"


One of my favourite characters in The Robots of Death is D.84, the robot detective. However, his character traits, which were so likeable on screen, weren't really brought out in the book. On TV the robots have a polite but emotionless speech pattern. However, D.84 is also imbued with what could be described as humility, and a childlike desire to participate and learn. This combines well with Baker's natural flamboyance, and they manage to build quite a rapport. Paradoxically, D.84 also exhibits a dry sense of humour which helps the viewer relate to him as a character in his own right. (e.g. when suggesting the Doctor uses his communicator - "I cannot speak" or "please do not throw hands at me" when Leela throws a discarded robot hand at D.84, not realizing who it is - a scene that Dicks missed). It is therefore easy to feel genuine regret at his eventual fate - especially as self-less sacrifice is a highly regarded trait when present in humans. I particularly like the Doctors response to D.84's statement that he is not important by saying "I think you're very important". The Doctor treats D.84 like a "real person", and I thought D.84's comment at the end, said with a tinge of sadness: "Goodbye, my friend" had much more impact on television than in the book.

All in All...

The TV version of The Robots of Death is my view an extremely well crafted tale, as I've come to appreciate in researching this article. Yes, there are one or two flaws and loose ends, and it did seem a little rushed at the end. But in all it was an excellent four episodes of television. Perhaps, given the high quality of the televised story, and the limitations of the novelisations at the time, it was always going to be difficult for the book to attain those high standards. Maybe one day someone will attempt to rewrite the novelisation?

This item appeared in TSV 31 (November 1992).

Index nodes: The Robots of Death